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School cafeterias cook up a new plan

Parents might soon have a way to make sure their children are buying nutritious lunches _ not junk food _ in Pasco school cafeterias.

A proposed automation system would allow parents to restrict what children are allowed to buy.

"Think about the high school parent who thinks their child is having a hot lunch every day when their child is really having three Little Debbies (snack cakes) and two ice creams," School Board Chairwoman Marge Whaley said Wednesday.

As she and other board members learned at their meeting Tuesday night, the system also removes the stigma sometimes faced by high school and middle school students who participate in the free and reduced-price meal program. No longer will they be identified as participants in front of their peers.

Automating food-service lines also will decrease clerical errors and will streamline food and supply orders, food service director Rick Kurtz said Tuesday night.

The board unanimously approved trying out the $500,000 districtwide automation system for a month at Moon Lake Elementary School and Stewart Middle School. If the tryouts go well, food service may use money from its budget to buy the system.

The system works this way:

Youngsters give their six-digit student identification number to cafeteria workers in the check-out line. When the number is punched into the computer, the child's name appears on the screen.

As the worker punches in the items the child is buying for breakfast or lunch, computer software provides a nutritional analysis of the meal, Kurtz said.

The district has been encouraging parents to pay for meals in advance, and the automation system would allow workers to see how much money is left in an advance-payment fund. Parents would be notified when the fund ran low.

The payment system lets parents avoid morning hassles over lunch money. They also may list items they don't want their children to be able to buy.

Kurtz watched the system in use in St. Lucie and Martin counties and decided that "it's phenomenal."

That may be so, but board attorney Joe McClain wanted to know about the possible ways to breach the system. Kurtz said kids do use each other's identification numbers and find other ways to cause problems.

He said youngsters in both counties were asked about the tricks they devised to beat the system. Based on what they had to say, one safeguard will be in place immediately: Youngsters will have to give their names as well as their numbers.

So, if a student is using someone else's number, he will have to say aloud that person's name. The hope is that others in the line will intervene. Plus, cafeteria workers know the kids, Kurtz said.

However, he did not dismiss the likelihood that some other way around the system will be found, particularly among middle school children, whom Kurtz termed "especially creative."

"I'm sure they'll come up with something else, and hopefully we'll be smart enough to figure it out and implement controls," Kurtz said, which seemed to satisfy McClain.

Board member Kathleen Wolf wondered about the possibility of placing in the computer files a child's photograph. While that can be done, the cost is prohibitive, Kurtz said.

The same was true a few years ago about the automation system, which used to cost $1.3-million.

One other possible snag came up when board members discussed having elementary school children memorize a six-digit number. Many high school kids know their identification numbers because they have to use them more often, but until that point in school most youngsters don't need to memorize the six digits.

"My preschoolers have memorized their phone numbers, so I'm sure kids can learn" their school ID numbers, said board member Kathleen Wolf, who owns a preschool.

Kurtz said there is a game teachers can use to help youngsters memorize the numbers.

Younger children also will see the importance of technology in all kinds of jobs, Kurtz said.

"They'll see that the cafeteria ladies use computers, too, and they'll realize how important technology is for all kinds of jobs," he said.